HC Deb 24 October 2001 vol 373 cc273-82
Q2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 24 October.

The Prime Minister

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further such meetings later today.

Michael Fabricant

The whole House will be aware of the crippling effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Some three quarters of a million people suffer from the disease. May I draw to the attention of the Prime Minister the plight of my constituent, Councillor Tony Lanchester, who happens to be the former Labour leader of Lichfield district council, and who suffers from the disease? He goes to Cannock hospital but cannot be prescribed drugs for the disease because the health authority will not pay for it. In the next bed, patients from Sutton Coldfield have their drugs paid for by their health authority. That state of affairs is repeated in every constituency in the country. What steps can the Prime Minister take to stop this postcode prescribing?

The Prime Minister

I greatly sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituent. Rheumatoid arthritis is a very debilitating condition. Under the present system, there is postcode prescribing and health authorities may make different decisions for patients in different parts of the country. That is precisely why we want to change that system, which we inherited. We have introduced a new system in which there is independent assessment of drugs and their effect on people. Then, because of the increased funding, we are able to ensure that those drugs are available. I hope, therefore, that the problems of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and others will be dealt with in time.

Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

Will the Prime Minister consider an area where the level of infant mortality is as high as that in Afghanistan—the Great Lakes region and, specifically, the Congo? In the past three years, 2.5 million people have died from conflict-related deaths there. Will my right hon. Friend consider the recommendations of the all-party group and look into brokering a package to help people in the Great Lakes region?

The Prime Minister

The all-party group has done us a service in providing that report. As my hon. Friend says, literally millions of people have died in the past decade as a result of conflict and famine in the Great Lakes region. For that reason, we strongly support the Lusaka accord and hope that it can be implemented. We are working with others in the region to try to ensure that the people there have some chance of stability for the future. As we deal with the appalling situation that we are having to deal with in Afghanistan, it is right that we remember that other parts of the world have also been scarred by conflict. If we put the international focus on them, I am sure that we can do some good there too.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

As someone who found himself on patrol in Northern Ireland 25 years ago, I welcome any moves toward peace, particularly ones as significant as those made by the IRA yesterday. They were part of a peace process that was begun by John Major and taken forward by the Prime Minister. It is vital, however, that that event is not a one-off gesture, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand, but a process that leads to all IRA weapons being put beyond use, as specified by the Belfast agreement. Will the Prime Minister tell us when he expects decommissioning to be completed? Will that he before the de Chastelain commission remit runs out this February?

The Prime Minister

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome of the move that was made yesterday. It is a big step forward and it deserves a generous response. In effect, the position in Northern Ireland is that every political party of any substance or with any support in any part of the community recognises that the only way to resolve differences in future is by peaceful and democratic means. Yesterday was a day when people finally understood that the gun and the bomb have no place whatever in the future of Northern Ireland. I certainly pay tribute to the efforts of my predecessor in the peace process and to those of successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, not least my right hon. Friend the present incumbent, who has done an immense amount in the past few months to move the process forward. On decommissioning, as the de Chastelain commission said yesterday, that is in its hands as part of its mandate and that is the right way to resolve it.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Taking note of what the Prime Minister says about all the parties, does he agree that it is now the responsibility of the so-called loyalist groups to come forward and ante up to this action too? Can the Prime Minister tell us whether he has had any indications that so-called loyalist paramilitaries are willing to make any reciprocal response and does he agree that loyalist political leaders, who have done a lot of talking recently, now have a major responsibility for ensuring that their arms are also put beyond use?

The Prime Minister

Certainly, that is right. The loyalist leaders and paramilitaries have an obligation to do everything they can to put weapons beyond use too, and to bring under control situations such as the one that exists in north Belfast, which rightly shocked people throughout the United Kingdom. I very much hope that loyalists will respond properly to this move. Most of us believe that some of those who engage in paramilitary action who call themselves loyalists actually have no loyalty to the proper principles of the United Kingdom at all.

Mr. Duncan Smith

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke today and yesterday about security normalisation, but he also said that the process of demilitarisation should begin. Obviously, where there is a clear reduction in the level of terrorist, threat changes to security can of course be made, but the threat from dissident groups such as the Real IRA remains high. As one of them chillingly said on the radio this morning: The Real IRA will take up the mantle of being the IRA now, and continue the challenge to Britain's occupation. Given that even after the complete decommissioning process there will still be a large number of illegal arms in Northern Ireland, will the Prime Minister assure the House that changes to security will be made only on the basis of a clear assessment of the terrorist threat, and that nothing will be done that weakens our continuing ability to deal with terrorism both in the Province and in the rest of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

Of course we will and should act on advice. We have an absolute duty to make sure that we protect the people in Northern Ireland. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that we shall do what is necessary for that. As a result of yesterday's move—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will disclose the details later—there are changes that we can make, but they are fully consistent with the advice that we have. Of course we all want to see a situation in Northern Ireland as soon as possible where policing and security are carried out on a normal basis. That is what the people of Northern Ireland wish to have.

Of course there is a risk from splinter republican groups—the so-called Real IRA—and loyalist groups. It is obviously important that we take account of that, but it is also important that we do not let any of those groups have any form of veto over the process of moving forward to a more peaceful era for Northern Ireland. So, yes, we will act on advice—we have to protect our people properly—but we believe that yesterday's announcement changes the situation significantly.

Q3. Mr. Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey)

As we struggle to define global politics after the events of 11 September, does my right hon. Friend think that, as part of that discussion, we need to consider relocating those world organisations—largely born in the 1940s—such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation, from America to places in the rest of the world?

The Prime Minister

World-based organisations are indeed located in different parts of the world—some in Geneva, some in London, some in the United States of America and some in other parts of the world. Decisions as to the location of future organisations will be made at a future date.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

That sounds like a pretty wise answer.

Given that because of the sheer pressure of numbers of refugees amassing at present on the borders of Pakistan, Pakistan has felt obliged to close its borders to Afghanistan, what steps are the Government taking to reopen the issue of debt relief to Pakistan for the financial, physical and internal political pressures on that country? Indeed, that applies not only to Pakistan itself but to the wider Asian sub-continent. Does the Prime Minister agree that tackling debt relief now could be of real practical benefit?

The Prime Minister

We are doing what we can on that front. We recognise the importance of debt reduction for Pakistan. My right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for International Development have both worked hard to do that. We are taking a series of measures in terms of the aid we are giving Pakistan—indeed we have increased that recently. Of course much of the debt is not actually ours, so there is a limit to what we can do, but we are working with the international community to do it. The fact that Pakistan passed the first phase of its IMF programme and did so in a way that should commend itself to the IMF is a big step forward in itself and will of course lead to significant measures from the international community to help Pakistan.

Mr. Kennedy

Does the Prime Minister concur that the allied coalition members who are not expected or required to make a military contribution should, none the less be strongly encouraged to make a financial contribution? Will he take every possible opportunity to stress that course of action to them?

The Prime Minister

We are doing that. Indeed, to be fair, many countries are now helping Pakistan substantially. Pakistan is also dealing with the problem of about 2 million refugees from Afghanistan. One of the reasons why we have asked for additional sums of aid to be made available is precisely to deal with the refugee problem. Some $700 million has been agreed for the humanitarian effort as a whole and, if more is necessary, I am sure it will be agreed. The finance is there, but we need to make sure that the refugees are being properly looked after and that the organisation is in place to do that.

Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford)

During the Gulf war, there was much talk about building a new world order and, after the Gulf war, we heard very little more about it. Will the Prime Minister therefore take it from me how deeply and widely welcomed is his personal commitment to the need for social and economic justice across the world? Will he tell me what actions he intends to pursue internationally to achieve that new dispensation after the present necessary military actions are over?

The Prime Minister

I hope that we have learned from the mistakes that were made by the west in Afghanistan some 10 or 12 years ago. The truth is that we left the country with very little hope of reconstruction. As a result of that, the Taliban regime eventually came to power, and the consequences of that we now know. That is why it is important that we work with the United Nations to make sure that there is a broad-based successor regime to the Taliban and then commit ourselves to the reconstruction of the country, the elimination of its drugs trade and the production of stability in the political process. As I think we now recognise, that would not merely be right for the people of Afghanistan but would be in our self-interest.

Q4. Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

The Prime Minister told his party conference earlier this month that the humanitarian campaign would be pursued with every bit as much thought and planning as the military campaign. Although I appreciate that there will be a statement later this afternoon on the international humanitarian crisis, will he give the House his personal assurance that the military campaign being pursued is compatible with the humanitarian campaign? Will he spell out in detail how it is working in practice?

The Prime Minister

I do not know whether the hon. Lady saw the comments from the World Food Programme, saying, indeed, that it was not the bombing that was stopping food getting through into Afghanistan. Food is getting in, and I think that, in the past week or so, something like 5,000 tonnes of food have gone in. That is not sufficient—I think the requirement is 1,700 tonnes a day. We are doing everything we can, but the principal problem that is faced as convoys go into Afghanistan is the activities of the Taliban regime.

I hope that the hon. Lady will accept my commitment to do all that we can to make sure that the humanitarian process is taken forward and will join me in calling on the Taliban regime to facilitate aid going into Afghanistan and not to engage in the harrying tactics, the theft of aid, the theft of vehicles and the refusal to co-operate with UN aid workers that are, at present, the hallmark of that regime.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

Does the Prime Minister not recognise that the continued bombing campaign, including the use of cluster bombs, in Afghanistan is forcing large numbers of people to seek refuge in Pakistan; is bringing devastation and poverty to the people of Afghanistan; and seems to be directed, in part, against conscripted soldiers and against civilian targets? Does he accept last week's call by the aid agencies for a halt in the bombing to allow the humanitarian aid to get in? That would prevent more death and destruction.

The Prime Minister

I just answered a question about the humanitarian programme and I drew attention to comments of spokespersons for the World Food Programme who said that it is not the bombing that is preventing the food getting through.

In respect of the campaign itself, there are no civilian targets at all. Unlike bin Laden and the al-Qaeda network who set out to kill as many civilians as they possibly could, we do everything we can to minimise civilian casualties. As I said earlier today, there is a simple choice. After an atrocity such as that of 11 September, we decide either that we are going to act against those responsible and against those sheltering those who are responsible or that we do not. In the light of that atrocity and the fact that we know that that network of terror intends to commit further such atrocities, I cannot see how we could possibly stand back and do nothing.

I respect entirely my hon. Friend's right to disagree with the course that we are taking, but I believe that course to be right.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

Does the Prime Minister recognise that the European convention on human rights as incorporated into United Kingdom law is proving an obstacle to protecting the lives of British citizens?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not accept that. However, we have made it clear that our plans include a derogation from article 5 if that is necessary.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Apart from that slight contradiction, is not the problem more fundamental than the Prime Minister implies in his solution? The Home Secretary said yesterday that he shares the instincts of the British people, who cannot understand why terrorists are able to hide in this country when they would not be able to do so in, for example, France. Sadly, the Home Secretary's proposals so far will not allow those who threaten our national security to be deported any quicker. Is it not true that simply locking such people up indefinitely cannot be a substitute for deporting them from our country? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

The answer to hon. Members who shout out is that the Home Secretary mentioned the derogation from article 5 in his statement a week ago. Obviously, they did not pay much attention to it.

I find the right hon. Gentleman's points curious. In response to the Home Secretary's statement, the shadow Home Secretary asked for detailed scrutiny of legislation, but basically supported the proposals. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have offered him an opportunity to consult us and to produce different proposals. However, it would be a mistake to scrap the European convention on human rights as incorporated into British law. I do not know whether that is his position. If it is, we are willing to listen to him. I believe that it is possible to make the necessary changes and protect our citizens without getting rid of the European convention on human rights, which gives our citizens a legitimate course of action in certain circumstances against the Government.

Mr. Duncan Smith

It is not going from one extreme to the other. The Prime Minister has taken a valuable lead, for which I applaud him, in building the coalition with, for example, the Arab states. Is he aware, as I am, of their dismay as they see convicted terrorists using our legal system to avoid their natural judicial process? When we are asking our allies to make huge efforts as part of the war against terrorism, is it not time to ensure that terrorists cannot shelter behind our laws? In that same spirit, we stand ready to work with the Prime Minister to tackle the problems that are being caused by the European convention on human rights. Surely—this is the point—when the law is wrong the law must be changed.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman's general point. It is important that our laws do not give succour or help to people who engage in terrorist activities. That is why the Home Secretary made his statement and why we want to change the law on, for example, extradition, because that process takes far too long. All that is agreed. Indeed, last year we tightened the law in the Terrorism Act 2000 to allow us for the first time to take certain actions against groups that operate out of this country. I also entirely agree—I have made this point often—that we cannot ask for the support of other international leaders in the fight against terrorism if we allow groups who harbour terrorists to operate out of Britain. All that is agreed. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we get rid of the incorporation into British law of the European convention on human rights, then I disagree, because that would be a mistake.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we are engaged in the coalition because of the principles contained in the European convention on human rights? We are defending human dignity and people's freedom under the law, including their right to a fair trial and to be protected from arbitrary justice. The moment we start derogating from or denying those principles, we give the victory to the terrorist.

The Prime Minister

It is also worth pointing out that the European convention on human rights—which is not a product of the European Union, incidentally—is something on the basis of which people are able to litigate, whereas previously they were only able to do so by going to the European Court of Human Rights. What we have done allows people to litigate here in this country, and I regard that as a sensible thing to have done.

There is specific provision in certain circumstances for a derogation from some of the articles of the convention, and I think that that is a right step to take, but to get rid of the convention altogether is wrong. Across the range of government, there are circumstances in which it is right that the citizen should have a general ability to take Government to court and claim that certain actions of Government transgress basic civil liberties. That is a step forward for our constitution, not a step backward.

Q5. Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford)

Does the Prime Minister remember saying on 30 April 1997, in the days when he used to be the master of spin, that the nation had 24 hours in which to save the national health service? Why, 39,255 hours later, is he saying that he needs more time in which to save the NHS?

The Prime Minister

The answer is simple. The policies of the previous Conservative Government had resulted in underfunding of the NHS, a cut in the number of training places for nurses, a cut in hospital beds and an end to the hospital building programme. All those things have now been changed, with the result, as the hon. Gentleman will know from his constituency, that we are now putting more money than ever before into the health service and the education service. The difference between my political party and his is that whereas mine believes that that money should go into the health service, his believes in taking it back out again.

Q6. Mr. Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central)

In the longer term battle against terrorism, peace in the middle east must move rapidly up the agenda. A peace that offers justice and security to both Palestinians and Israelis must be restored to the world's agenda. Does my right hon. Friend agree that only outside intervention can break the current deadlock in the middle east? Will he give a commitment to lead, with the same energy as he has rightly led in Afghanistan, the charge for a diplomatic solution to bring pressure to bear on Israel and the Palestine Authority to return to the negotiating table and secure the peace that will help the people of the middle east?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right to say that some outside help might be needed to get the peace process in the middle east restarted, but nothing can happen unless the key parties themselves want to take that process forward. I urge them strongly to do so. For all the difficulties, all the bloodshed, the daily funerals, the reprisals and the retaliation, people know that at some point Israelis and Palestinians will have to come back to the negotiating table and work out how to live side by side in peace. Whatever difficulties we have met during the peace process in Northern Ireland, at least it offers some sign that if people persevere, whatever the problems they face, it is better than leaving a vacuum into which extremism inevitably moves.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Recognising that an important step was taken yesterday in Northern Ireland—although it is not the end of the road by any means—I should like to tell the Prime Minister that in response to that and in the interests of good government, and entirely without prejudice to the decision to be taken by my party on Saturday, earlier this afternoon I again nominated the Ulster Unionist Ministers in the Executive.

However, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect again on the important point that was put to him by the Leader of the Opposition in respect of decommissioning and the fact that the remit of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning expires in February 2002. Although we would love to leave matters to the commission, primary responsibility rests with the Government. If when we reach February 2002 some, any or all paramilitary organisations have not achieved complete disarmament, what sanctions will the Government apply to them, so as to avoid others having to apply sanctions?

The Prime Minister

The point raised by the right hon. Gentleman is legitimate. It is important that we make sure that the members international commission can carry out their mandate in full. What I was saying earlier to the Leader of the Opposition, is that it is important that they are the ones now seized of that issue and that they carry it out in accordance with that mandate. I am sure that if any difficulties arise in relation to that, they can be sorted out.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Given that international unity is crucial to our present campaign, will my right hon. Friend encourage our American allies to show caution and flexibility over divisive policies, particularly in assessing the priority that they still seem to be giving to breaching the international treaty obligation which the United States, the United Kingdom and nearly all nations entered into last year to maintain and strengthen the anti-ballistic missile treaty?

The Prime Minister

Of course, it is important that we strengthen measures against nuclear proliferation. All that I would say to my hon. Friend is that President Bush is right to say that weapons of mass destruction and their proliferation bring about a change in the context in which we discuss these issues. As I said when I was with President Bush in Camp David in February, it is important that we look at defensive and offensive systems to try and take the issue forward. I think that my hon. Friend will find in the discussions, most recently with President Putin following the summit in China, that the United States and Russia are reaching towards a new and better understanding of how they progress on those issues.

I have always taken the view that it is best to make progress through dialogue and consultation. However, it is true that we have a new situation today in international relations and the international threat that we face. I believe that President Bush is right, to raise the issue of what are the best offensive and defensive systems for countering that threat. I believe that with good will we shall reach agreement.